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Angry At Pay Cuts, Greek Judges Hit State Where It Hurts

Agence France Presse

Greek Judges Hit State Where It HurtsAfter slashing the salaries of civil servants, police officers and teachers for three straight years, the Greek government has finally found an adversary that can hit back: judges.

A tug-of-war between executive and judicial authorities has come to the fore after complaints by the government over adverse rulings that could affect the country's reforms, which are a condition of bankruptcy-saving EU-IMF loans.

Since September, judges and prosecutors have staged rolling work stoppages to protest planned pay cuts, frustrating efforts to prosecute tax debtors.

Court staff have also held walkouts during the same period.

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Administrative judges last week decided to end their protest, but over a million trials of all manner have already been postponed as a result of the mobilisation, according to news reports.

Earlier in December a court in northern Greece temporarily blocked a government move to sideline local civil servants, part of nationwide efforts to reduce the state payroll and an integral part of the country's fiscal reforms.

But the last straw for the government came when an Athens court ruled illegal a 2011 emergency act by the finance ministry to collect property tax through electricity bills, a vital measure to increase state income.

Cash-strapped Greek authorities were hoping to collect over two billion euros ($2.6 billion) this year from this particular tax and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras came out swinging against the judiciary after the ruling.

"All of us have a patriotic duty, and so do judges," Stournaras told private Skai television in an interview.

"We all need to cut part of our earnings...to avert collapse," he said, pledging to fight the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court.

Justice insiders say outrage in Greece over successive salary and pension cuts has finally struck home for judges, affecting their decisions.

"It is clear that judges are not reacting as in the past, when they were satisfied with their salaries," says Penelope Fountedaki, an associate professor of constitutional law at Athens' Panteio university.

"Now there is a vindictive logic...that is out of the ordinary," she told AFP.

Judges and prosecutors say their salaries had already been slashed by nearly 40 percent in the last two years and a new round of austerity measures will push the cut to over 50 percent.

"The judicial system so far is not based on state facilities, judges take their work home and pay out of their own pocket for resources such as court data and law publications," Panagiotis Lyberopoulos, a senior member of the association of judges and prosecutors, said a recent radio interview.

"And the cost of transportation and maintaining a second home (in judges' allocated area of appointment) is prohibitive," he said.

Retired Supreme Court judge Constantine Lyberopoulos added in a Sunday opinion piece in To Vima weekly: "The workload of judges is such that not even 10,000 euros would be a satisfactory salary."

"But then I see that the head of the army general staff has a basic salary of 1,800 euros and I'm horrified," he added.

Fountedaki notes that judicial officials benefited in the past by regulating their own salaries through a special court set up in 2002.

But now, some low-level judges make do with 1,200 euros a month, she adds.

This is still over double the legal minimum salary, which for many Greeks has been reduced to under 600 euros after three years of austerity measures.

"On the one hand there is dissatisfaction among judges over their salaries but also the view that they have a duty to defend social cohesion," Fountedaki said.

"It is important to them to have popular approval," she added.